San Francisco is a strange city. In the summer, the fog rolls downs the streets with quiet eeriness, and the haze misplaces the light, making it grimly grey and dark. The cold feels so unnatural for the end of July, and night comes quickly. At 2 a.m., the bars close and wild-eyed souls disperse to roam the night – young, drunk and horny men in business suits willing to do anything, drag queens on their way to 24-hr cafes for pancakes, and young street kids who tell you the weirdest stories about night ghouls. “It’s an old city full of living and dead ghosts,” a dirty blonde beach boy told to me one night. “I’ve seen vampires. They suck blood, but not from where you think.”
I moved here with no job, friends, or even a place to live because I wanted to complete a pilgrimage to the gay Mecca. I was a Texas-born Mexican who had known one way of life. Between my Catholic upbringing, invincible youth, and magical thinking, I was suddenly living a pipe dream, and much to the surprise of my friends back home, and myself, I was surviving and thriving.
I spent a year living in reckless debauchery, full of unseemly dalliances, drunken stupors, dancing the night away, and stumbling to work after two hours of sleep at a train station. The next night was a new adventure with so many different kinds of people. One can get lost quickly and the night life grinds you down. But I wanted to experienced the underbelly of the city that no tourist would ever see. Places like these have their own mysterious vibration that few people are ever awake to witness.
With my oats fully sown, I changed my course, and fell in love with a pragmatic music man. Love at first sight does exist, and I knew this would be the man I would marry. We moved from place to place as young couples do, finding our way. I moved away from San Francisco, yet my partner though born and raised in the Bay Area had never lived in The City, as the locals call it. The call was too much to resist and we ended up looking for a home in one for the most expensive cities in the country.
One night we drove by a gorgeous building and noticed a "for rent" sign out front. We stopped and asked the owner about the apartment and she said they had been showing it all day and had a ton of interested parties, sorry. But she let us look at the place anyway. It was a colorfully restored Edwardian flat in the North of Panhandle neighborhood, just north of Golden Gate Park. It was a skinny railroad apartment, with a south-facing front room on one end. The bright sunlight dissipated quickly down the long hall, to a dark bedroom which used to be a dining room complete with built-in glassed hutch. The ceilings were 12-feet tall, with ornate dark scarlet wood walls. There was a coffin-sized closet carved unceremoniously into a wall and under an exterior staircase. The ornate parquet floors all sloped in different directions making each step a dilemma. Beneath our feet was an unused boarded up basement where shuffling could occasionally be heard. It was quirky and we both instantly loved it.
The building was owned by two lesbians, one a lawyer and one an artist. Chatting for a few minutes, we hit it off instantly. One of the women took down our names and number in case of a future vacancy. The call came the next day. The tenant they choose didn't pass a reference check. The apartment was ours if we wanted her but had to tell her yes before hanging up. She didn't have any of our references but had a good feeling about us. It helped that my partner was a middle school teacher at the time, and one of their mom's was a retired school teacher. We got the apartment! This is extremely rare for San Francisco where you have to fight, cajole, and bribe landlords for a place.
We settled into our new urban life together. Over the next few months, we explored the city, the restaurants, and even occasionally had drinks with one of the owners. She told us so many stories about San Francisco and her building. It was once a boarding house for wayward women! Also, the basement was empty because they couldn't seem to keep a tenant there for long so they stopped renting it out. Around the corner was the Jim Jones cult church. A couple blocks over is the famous Alamo Square Park, home of the "Painted Ladies," a historic row of houses seen on postcards. On the opposite corner of the park is infamous Westerfeld House, a house plagued with death, rock-n-roll, and even Satanic worship. Its high tower casts a dubious shadow with its terrifying owl-like arched eyes. Whenever I walked by there, the house gave me a shudder.
I purchased a digital camera to capture our new life and one day, I randomly snapped a picture of my partner standing in the hallway. I noticed an odd shape and transferred the picture my computer where I could zoom in. The shape was the face of a gaunt old woman hanging in mid air next to my partner. You could make out one shoulder and part of her floral dress. But her size was wrong. She was much smaller than a person should be and definitely not a child. Without prompting, I asked my partner to look at the photo and he immediately saw it too. It wasn’t just a random case of pareidolia. She was there.
I couldn’t sleep that night, my mind fixated on the picture. I’ve loved spooky stories and ghostly horror movies all my life. I wondered if I’d ever see a ghost. As a child, I believed all the tall tales of La Llorona and the chupacabra. And suddenly, I am questioning everything. Is this real? Is this a trick of the mind? I got up in the middle of the night, launched my computer, and opened the picture again. She was there. I went to work, came home, and checked again. She was there. Was I giving too much energy to this incident? Why did I not want to talk about it? Was I scared or curious?
I was fed up. I didn’t want to see it again, and wanted it gone, reminded of a something I once read. In some cultures, people refuse to have their picture taken because they believe it takes a little bit of the soul with it. I deleted the photo and reformatted the camera’s SD card. My partner was livid that I got rid of such a cool picture considering how much I love supernatural stuff. I couldn’t explain why at the time, but having that picture was influencing my thoughts. I was becoming obsessed.
Soon after that incident, we started smelling an old woman’s perfume, like gardenia, in the long hall. When it was present, it hung like an invisible ball in the air. You could step into it, smell it, then move away, and it would be instantly gone. Perhaps our neighbor had a new candle and the scent wafted through an unseen crack in the wall? I couldn’t corroborate that theory with any tenant.
The hallway became a central hub of confusion. The door to the water closet was open. The door to the bathroom was closed. The lights were on when they should be off. One slipper was in the hall. My keys, wallet and phone also disappeared intermittently and later appeared somewhere in the hall. A floppy, blue teddy bear appeared in the center of the hall, placed precariously in a sitting position. This happened repeatedly, so I stored the bear in the bedroom inside a latched glass cabinet. The next morning it was back in the hall to greet us. My partner is extremely particular in all matters of doors, drawers, and things, and none of this was him. So he accused me of deliberately carrying out an elaborate prank. My frustration led to me accuse my partner of the same thing. It’s the little things that get obnoxious quickly and we were fighting much too frequently.
This was when I first noticed the voice of the other. From a young age, I had few friends and was the last of five siblings. I spent a lot of time by myself and often talked to myself. I developed and trusted this voice of mine to deliberate issues, to play, or just to not feel alone. The voice I started to hear was not my voice. This was something else. Something foreign. It superseded and muffled my own inner voice. The Other would tell me things about my partner: he is so stupid, he has a secret life, he’s cheating on you, he hates you, he is going to die today. I tried to stop it, listened to music, called a friend, anything to distract me. At the time I was in grief counseling from unresolved issues with the death of my father, but didn’t think this had anything to do with it. I had no family history of mental illness, and yet I knew this was not normal. I never thought I was going crazy. I was fully functional, aware, and attempted to find explanations. I'd seen so many shows about people being haunted and I knew the drill.
Then, the nightmares started. In the first one, I was crashing my car into a wall, over and over again. I didn’t own a car. But I felt every moment of the car crushing my head, popping my organs, breaking every bone as the metal punctured through me in slow motion. In another dream, my deceased father with eyes of red glowing coals blamed me for killing my mother. My mother was alive and well. In the worst dream, I slowly sawed my brother’s head off with a saw as be pleaded with me to stop, bloody tears in his eyes. The dreams came every night. I was exhausted, drowsy, and constantly irritated. I believed that these were not my dreams. I was being influenced or tapping into something else that was incredibly dark and horrible.
I finally divulged everything to my therapist and she was very concerned. I was referred to a psychiatrist, was screened, monitored, and deemed not to be a danger to myself or others. I was sent away with a bottle of sleeping pills and a pamphlet on anxiety.
One night, I awoke and a shadowy, featureless shape stood motionless in the far corner of the room. Was it just a trick of the mind, a hung jacket, some light somewhere casting a shadow, or perhaps a side effect of the pills? Night after night, I awoke and saw the still figure. It appeared in different parts of the room, and sometimes, in complete darkness, but I could see a faint outline. It was somehow darker than ordinary darkness, like a flat void with no discernible mass. With my camera in hand, I took picture after picture, with flash and without, to no avail. My partner, a sound sleeper, saw nothing. I finally realized that I was being targeted and antagonized, and I felt incredibly alone.
Then the shape appeared at the foot of my bed, closer than it had ever been. I scrambled out of bed, never losing sight of it, and stood in front of it. To my surprise, it didn’t move at all. I stretched out one arm and punched right threw it. I flailed now with both arms outstretched, clawing the air but my hands found no purchase. It was gone.
I slept a restful few nights and the memory of it all faded. A few nights later, I awoke in the middle of the night staring at the ceiling. I turned over to my partner, who laid in bed next to me. Between us, in those few inches of space, was the shape. I couldn’t see my partner. There was just a void of black, up close and personal. I was terrified. How could it be there between us? I stared at it for a second, closed my eyes instinctively, and punched it. My fist landed with a thud on my partner’s back. With eyes still closed, I prayed out loud, somehow remembering all the words to the Lord’s Prayer. How long had it been since I recited that prayer? How did I remember it? I opened my eyes, and it was gone and I could clearly see my partner, who groaned, partially awake, and asked me what the hell I was doing. Every night that I prayed, it did not return.
In October, Rebecca, my neighbor across the hall, invited us to her annual Halloween party. She introduced me to Sam, a wispy girl with a look of disaffected bewilderment. She was an animal empath and could talk to animals, or rather understood what they thought. She was hired by people all over the city to suss out their pet’s wishes. She was kooky but sweet. While making small talk, she abruptly stopped me in mid-sentence and asked if we lived across the hall. I said yes. She exchanged a glance with Rebecca. Sam asked if she could see the apartment. We walked across the dim hall, and upon entering, she brazenly announced two things: she was also a medium, and she wasn’t going to try to convince me about her gifts. She didn’t care if I believed her or not.
Sam immediately sensed a small boy, who said I was mean. Without hesitation, I asked him why he said that. I yelled at my partner all the time, he said. Sam asked me not to be combative. I told him I was sorry and that I loved my partner very much and would not yell at him anymore. The boy said ok and wandered off. Years earlier, my partner told me when he was young, a ghost boy lived in the closet of his childhood bedroom. He would talk it, play with it, and his parents never seemed concerned. Had his imaginary friend followed us to San Francisco? Sam said my partner was a kind of beacon, like a lighthouse, that draws all kinds of souls to him. He is incredibly charismatic and you can see that light in his eyes.
She asked Rebecca and me to remain where we were as she moved further down the hall, and then to the bedroom. She came back a little shaken and gave me a strange look. She asked me if I had any trouble in the bedroom. I was embarrassed but said I was handling it. It's not here right now, but it’s not far, she said. Sam grabbed both of our hands. She told us that our troubles were caused by a portal deep within the house. Rebecca had troubles too, I thought to myself! We live in something like a train station with many entities traveling in and out, some lingered behind. Some were stronger. Not all entities were human, and she nodded towards the bedroom. Every nerve on my body suddenly tightened.
Aside from my therapist, I hadn’t told anyone what was happening. Sam darted past me saying she needed a smoke. We followed her outside. While she fumbled with her clove cigarette and lighter, I asked what a non-human entity was. She said that it was something dark, and probably feeding on us, and it was hiding deep in the house. We had to get rid of it immediately. I didn’t protest or ask any more questions.
Rebecca confided in me that she was experiencing disturbances and had asked Sam to come over. Rebecca believed that something had always been in this house, but it was never as pronounced as it was now. My partner is a beacon, I thought.
Sam said we should perform a cleansing ritual but that she could not be a part of it. We had to do it ourselves as the rightful inhabitants of the home. We got a list of materials and specific instructions for the ritual. Looking back, magic was something I always resisted, but I never questioned Sam and neither did Rebecca. I believed Rebecca to be a reasonable, cerebral individual who was not prone to flights of fancy. I trusted them both, and I was really tired of the disquiet, living so many months with this dread hanging over me. Our friends didn't even visit us because they felt uneasy in our home. I would try anything, within reason, and the ritual seemed fairly elementary.
It was an unusually warm afternoon in early November. Our first instruction was to get my partner out of the house and not be involved. I never asked why but also didn’t question it. He did so without protest. Sam said our hallway was the epicenter, so Rebecca and I would perform the ritual in my apartment together. Every window, door, drawer, and cabinet was opened, and every light was turned on.
I started in the back most room, and waved a bundle of white sage in the air, while reciting good intentions. Honestly, I felt stupid but I did it. I traced every wall, corner, nook, and cranny of each room with the smudge stick, then shut the windows and doors and turned off the lights. I then sealed the door’s threshold with a line of salt. This was repeated, room by room, until we met at the center hallway. The bedroom door and south-facing room’s window remained opened and the bedroom threshold remained unsalted. The apartment filled with the aroma of sweet sage.
In the hall, we had prepared a special silver bowl filled with salt, denatured alcohol, and some herbs that Sam provided us. We lit the contents with a match and the herbs immediately charred and wafted into the air like fireflies. A low blue flame danced over the salt, and the special bowl almost seemed to hum. I held the bowl firmly at heart level, pacing up and down the hallway, while we recited a long incantation. The bedroom door rattled, and the pressure in the air seemed change and getting denser somehow. There was a presence here. Rebecca looked pale white.
As we continued with the incantation, I got dizzy, a pressure filled my head as if I was quickly losing altitude. The flame in the bowl changed from a calm blue to a bright, flickering yellow-orange. As we repeated the words a third time, the fire flared up, exploding out of the bowl and hitting the ceiling. Suddenly, a gust of wind shot out of the bedroom like a cannonball, the door swung shut and the gust of air went right past us. I thought I heard a growl like a dog, and the gust flew out the window in the far end, curtains billowing outward. Rebecca ran to the window, shut it, and salted the sill. The flame in the bowl instantly died down to its previous calm blue state.
For one second we looked at each other in bewilderment then a fire alarm shattered the stillness. The sound was deafening, and the lights strobed in the hall. We raced outside, fearing that we had started a fire, and just as soon as the alarm starting blaring it was silent again. My partner who was sitting at a nearby cafe ran up the street to see if we were alright. We were spooked but we were safe. And the alarm stopped. A fire truck pulled up but nothing was detected and it was considered a false alarm.
After the ritual, the house felt peaceful in a way it never had. My partner and I started getting along better. My therapist believed the ritual to be some sort of self-fulling prophecy that allowed me to move forward. I was sleeping better and more assured of myself, but my therapist was noncommittal as always and didn't buy my overnight "cure". Nonetheless, a few weeks later, she deemed me healthy and no longer in need of care. My partner and I decided to move out of that flat, and soon, we left San Francisco all together. We moved to the suburbs, between the infamous Winchester Mystery House and one of San Jose's oldest cemeteries. It's been a peaceful life ever since.
I look back at my time in San Francisco with a mix of wonder and unease. Something unexplained happened to me and then it ended, but it wasn’t fun like a horror movie. People are often curious about haunted houses and it sounds fascinating but living in one is not. I was slowly being consumed, one small bite at a time. It was almost imperceptible. Fifteen years later, it’s easier to believe that what I experienced wasn’t so dramatic and that I likely imagined most of it. Even writing this now, I don’t know where the truth lies. Time sands down the sharpest shards of bad memories to make them easier to swallow. And yet, I occasionally will see a shadow out of the corner of my eye and instantly recall the dread I felt then. It's a trigger-ready reaction. But I believe strongly in a higher power of good. If the goal of evil is to create doubt, then I should trust my memories and my feelings, and always be ready to fight.
Several years ago, I was invited to a lavish dinner at the beautiful San Francisco home of an eccentric conductor. It was a last-minute invite by my partner's colleague. She didn't want to go alone and by happenstance I was the only one available. I was nervous to go but she talked me into it. There would be privileged gay elite, and I was a scrappy suburban dweller who didn't own a dinner jacket. The house was gorgeously appointed with ornate tapestries, artwork like you'd see in a museum, and at least two buff male statues. The dinner table was set in a rather small dinning room and ten people crowded together. Huge silver candelabras sat on the table. The food was utterly decadent and the pricey booze flowed freely. The cast consisted of older San Franciscan queens regaling each other with ribald stories of the golden times. It was a surreal environment and I felt like I was in a movie.
I didn't dare utter a word other than to my friend, but at one point someone sneered at me about being the "bridge and tunnel" type. I mentioned that I used to live just down the hill. To seem more interesting, I also volunteered that my house was haunted. One ostentatious old queen seemed rather nonplussed. "Of course you did", he said, “We're all sitting on a graveyard.” I wondered what he meant, and with some trepidation, I pressed him to elaborate.
Everyone quieted and focused on his dimly, candle-lit face. He gave a not-brief and dire soliloquy about of the area, much to the chagrin of our host. At the time he said, this street, Divisadero, was at the far edge of the town. It now splits the small city in half. Every street urchin, prostitute and drunk lived on this street, he said. Then the city endured the great earthquake of 1906 and fires leveled entire neighborhoods, leaving bodies stacked on the streets or buried in the rubble for months. The city smelled of death. Everything east of the street was gone and quickly rebuilt properly. The land to west was used to bury the trash... and the dead, some in mass graves where rotting arms, legs, and heads were tossed in carelessly. As the city grew, the cemeteries – or more precisely – the headstones were moved south, and the city kept on building on top of the dust of the dead.
It was always a restless place, and will always be a restless place.
Original version published at GaylyDreadful.com, June 2020. Revised September 2022.
Copyright © 2022 Jerry Robredo